Though there is still work to be done toward the UC Irvine men's basketball team's goal of an outright Big West Conference title, earning at least a share with a victory at Cal State Fullerton on Thursday was something for Anteaters' supporters to relish.
UCI fans, who last celebrated a regular-season co-championship in the 2001-02 season, and an outright title a year before that, may also gain encouragement from the play of junior Will Davis in the 62-44 win over the Titans.
UCI players and coaches, however, will hold any celebratory antics until Saturday's regular-season and conference finale against visiting UC Davis at 4:30 p.m.
UCI (21-10, 10-3 in conference), ranked No. 14 in the CollegeInsider.com mid-major poll, remained one game ahead of UC Santa Barbara, which defeated Hawaii on Thursday. The Anteaters can claim the outright championship by defeating last-place UC Davis (9-21, 4-11), the lone conference team not in the Big West tournament, on Saturday, or a UCSB loss at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
"There will be a time to celebrate, but it's not now," UCI Coach Russell Turner said. "We're going to celebrate senior day for Chris McNealy on Saturday and that's something to celebrate. We have to honor him with a great performance. If we can do that, there will be [the outright Big West crown] to celebrate. And if we are lucky enough to have that, we'll press reset, because there are bigger prizes out there [a conference tournament title and the resulting automatic NCAA Tournament berth, which would be UCI's first] ."
The most prized performance for UCI on Thursday was that of the 6-foot-7 Davis, last year's Big West Defensive Player of the Year, who was by most accounts, the team's best player the first 16 games of the season, after he led the team with 12.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.
But a back ailment that forced him to miss conference games at UCSB and Cal Poly, has affected his game since, mostly his scoring. In his previous 11 games since early January, Davis had averaged just 7.3 points.
But he scored on the first three UCI possessions against the Titans, including a pair of mid-range jumpers, and finished the first half with 12 points on six-for-seven shooting from the field. Davis, whose 16 points were a team-high and a personal best since he had 17 on Jan. 4 against San Diego Christian, finished eight for nine from the field to help the visitors shoot 55.1% for the game (27 for 49).
Davis added four rebounds and one blocked shot, but his gains in the confidence department may be even more valuable.
"I'm starting to feel back to my old self," Davis said. "I'm glad It came. I was thinking if it didn't come during the regular season, it would come during the Big West tournament. Some of my explosiveness was affected [by the injury]. I couldn't jump as high or run as fast, but all that's coming back, so I feel like it's what I'm used to."
Turner was also pleased about Davis' productivity.
"He's an all-conference-level player," Turner said. "We know that, we've seen that and he has proven it. He has battled this year through a period when he physically was not 100% and he is now. People talk about his offense but that's a former defensive player of the year out there and he has helped us be really good at the defensive end."
Defense was apparent Thursday, as the Titans (11-18, 6-9) shot 30% from the field (15 for 50) and just 26.7% from three-point range. The hosts had just three assists on their 15 field goals and had five shots blocked.
The 'Eaters, whom Turner said might have the nation's top field-goal-percentage defense inside three-point range, are now 19-0, including 10 conference wins, in games in which the opponent shoots 40% or worse.
Sophomore Alex Young scored 13 for UCI, which had just nine turnovers.
Big West Conference
UC Irvine 62, Cal State Fullerton 44
UCI – Davis 14, Ndiaye 2, Young 13, Nelson 7, McNealy 5, Dunning 8, Ryan 7, Wright 6.
3-pt. goals – Nelson 1, McNealy 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
CSUF – Horne 1, Johnson 0, Harris 17, Williams 10, Gentry 6, McClellan 4, Collins 4, Blackwell 2.
3-pt. goals – Harris 3, Williams 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
Halftime – UCI, 32-19.